Repair Interview- Elana Baurer and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps
DC and New York Avodah fellows relaxing together in the New York bayit (house). Photo courtesy of Elana Baurer and AVODAH
Service has always been a part of Elana Baurer’s life – from her mother’s involvement with their synagogue’s social action committee, to her decision to major in African American studies at Wesleyan. But until recently, she always struggled to locate herself and her service work within a larger, like-minded community. Then she joined AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps – a year-long service program that came with an instant community of 17 other people.
Bauer, whom AVODAH helped to place for the year as a paralegal at the New York Legal Assistance Group, took the time to share her thoughts on serving communities in-need, the dangers of making assumptions, and how she hopes to bring the lessons she learned at AVODAH with her next year.
Tell me a bit about your background with service before AVODAH.
I grew up in a house where the idea that privilege comes with responsibility was instilled from a very young age. My mother was the social action chair of my synagogue, so those ideals were at the foundation of my identity and Jewish identity specifically.
In college I was an African American studies major, so I studied race, hierarchy and patriarchy and looked at the societal trends of inequality in America. While in school I got involved with prison work - I coordinated a program that brings Wesleyan students into a women's prison and facilitated workshops for men's prisons.
I got more interested in the study of prisons and volunteered at a women's law project in Philly. I dealt with clients one on one, answering hotlines and giving out basic legal information. It was not policy work, but it related to the larger structural problems.
What drew you to AVODAH?
Even though I have had experience with both service and Jewish service work, I had never effectively found a community around it. There was my parents' community in Philly, but not of my own peers. Many of the people I worked with in the social justice and social action worlds were either not Jewish or their Judaism did not play a role in the work. The two sides were connected within me, but I didn't have an external melting pot.
And how has it been to be a part of AVODAH's community?
It's been amazing. Right before AVODAH began I psyched myself down. We were a group of 18 and I didn't think I'd be able to connect with everyone. But I've been both challenged by and impressed with my housemates. It's been an interesting experience to learn what assumptions I made about the other participants and their motivations. There are many different backgrounds represented - people who studied organizing in college, people who were science majors, and everything in between.
Are the Corps members’ Jewish backgrounds also diverse?
We have a really wide range of Jewish backgrounds and that helps to inform our identity as a group. Around holidays we often talk about our different traditions and what we learned growing up.
What work do you do at your AVODAH placement?
My title is paralegal, but I have other friends with the same title who do very different things. I have my own client load and cases - I work primarily with Food Stamps and welfare cases. If clients have a problem, they can call our "warm-line" and leave a message so we can call them back. I also do advocacy work for my clients and represent them. It's rewarding because I'm helping my clients get the benefits that they are owed.
How has your work with AVODAH fit in with or diverged from the service you’ve done before?
Working with clients is so rewarding, and I've learned so much just seeing what people are up against every day. I'm not up against those same things, and it feels amazing to take some of their pressure off. This year has been really formative - I didn't know if I wanted to go to law school, and after working here for a few months, I felt convinced that it would be both rewarding and useful.
What do you want to take with you when the AVODAH year ends?
I think about this question a lot. One of the most important things for me is the idea of intentionality. In college I struggled with the Jewish community at Wesleyan and went back and forth between being involved and ambivalent. But the idea of intentionality, and continuing to bring my religious identity into my work, is something I want to maintain.
More practically, I'm planning on living with only one person next year, but still want to form a home around intentionality. I've been exposed to ideas about communal living as well as bringing sustainability into the home - making instead of buying snacks, or composting and reducing waste. I want to take these things forward.